Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Priceless



The word "Art" inspires two things in people's minds today: a somewhat sickened respect for something they do not understand or a desire to share in the prestige that comes from its sometimes exorbitant monetary value. For both groups, it simply doesn't matter whether the art has any aesthetic value or not, since this has been a matter of a very few at least since the fall of representational art - painting and sculpture that is inspired by what the artist sees. Since we all have eyes, too, the enjoyment of art used to be a communion between the artist's vision and ours. That world was abandoned when the expressionist movement gave way to abstract and abstract expressionist art, even if such labels have long since become meaningless. In the theater, belief is suspended - as long as the playwright and actors have done their job. In contemporary art, meaning itself is suspended.

But what does it mean when something is deemed to be "priceless"? It's supposed to mean that its value is incalculable - beyond any conceivable price. But to most people it simply means that its value is astronomical but still calculable, a number with six or seven zeroes after it. The values of precious metals and stones may fluctuate, but they are predictable. Art objects like paintings and sculptures, however, are as valuable as a buyer is prepared to pay for them. An art object's value has little or nothing to do with aesthetics any more. This is a deplorable state of affairs that raises a number of unsettling questions about our culture.

One interesting question that it raises is To Whom does art belong? I have always regarded art galleries as necessary evils, rather like zoos. Some zoos are much better than others, but the prospect of looking at wild animals being held captive in cages or "enclosures" is not an attractive one. The fact that, before very long, a zoo is the only place these creatures will be found is incredibly sad. 

Similarly, looking at a painting slapped on a wall in rooms filled with other paintings from different periods by different artists is just as unattractive. Rilke's tragic Panther could as likely have been a Bonnard or Miro, pacing compulsively behind the bars of a museum. But where else are we to put them and still have access to them? (And I believe that we have the right to see them.) If the inevitable fate of wild animal species is to be deprived of all natural habitat, the only place left for works of art, alas, are galleries.

But as the value of art - in dollars, that is - is driven ever upward, artworks become increasingly endangered by the poaching of art thieves. When famous artowkrs are stolen, their fates represent a problem to thieves. Surreptitious buyers, people willing to purchase stolen artworks, may derive satisfaction from the possession of such objects, of keeping them all to themselves and depriving everyione else of ever seeing them again. Artworks have disappeared before for long periods, only to turn up in unlikely places. Art stolen by the Nazis, like the Amber Room from Moscow's Hermitage Museum, have yet to be found. Depending on the time and place, cultural treasures belonging to undeveloped countries have been stolen literally en bloc, like the Elgin Marbles, marble friezes once adorning the entableture of the Parthenon. Greece wants them back, but is unlikely to get them. Andre Malraux, world renowned author and the French Minister of Culture for De Gaulle, was involved in the theft of pieces of Ankor Wat and other Khmer temples in the 1930s, when Cambodia was part of the French colony of Indochina.

I won't go so far as John Simon does in his blog post "Whither Art?": "Art today is the result of a tacit conspiracy among artists, art historians, art critics, art dealers, nabobs who don't know what to do with their money, and all the people who don't know anything about art." This brings up a more serious issue to do with the flight of artists from the world everyone else lives in. I have to admit that it's hard to deny that "art today" is hardly more than an elaborate hoax. The simple fact that there is so much money in it is one big giveaway. It's one thing that canvases by painters long dead should fetch boodles of cash at auctions, since the artists' demise insures that there will be no more Monets or Balthuses. But a remarkable number of living, even young, artists are now pulling down huge sums for their most recent dawbs, their sculptures and installations. Most of it suffers from what the late Stanley Kauffmann called "John Cage-ism": "Cage's 4'33" is a piece in which a pianist sits at a piano motionless for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, during which all we hear is what the pianist is not doing, whatever that may be." ("Style as Meaning," 15 August 2005) Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Emperor's New Clothes" has grown to be more prophetic than Nostradamus. But Andersen's story doesn't warn of what's to come. Being an artist used to mean a road straight to poverty and struggle. Now it's like winning the lottery every time he takes up a brush - or when his team of assistants do. We are now surrounded by naked emperors who call themselves artists.

But every now and then, somewhere in the world, a super rich man adjourns to a secret vault (it could as easily be a panic room or a secret toilet) and sits down to gaze in stupefied satisfaction at a stolen Cezanne or Klimt that he acquired at a clandestine auction of stolen art masterpieces, via Skype.  

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